No parachute, no problem: Maniacal skydiver nets world-record freefall
With no chute, no wingsuit and a big net awaiting somewhere far below, lifelong skydiver and certified madman Luke Aikens tumbled out of the airplane to begin his 25,000-ft freefall. Two minutes later he would embrace his family as the first skydiver to pull off such a feat, but the daring world record attempt wasn't without some last-minute complications.
Aikens has been throwing himself out of airplanes from ridiculous heights since he was a teenager, logging more than 18,000 skydives, helping train Felix Baumgartner for his sound barrier-busting jump and performing numerous stunts, including an appearance in Iron Man 3.
But even for a man who has done more skydives than I've had hot dinners, the so-called "Heaven Sent" jump was a different kind of beast. With no wingsuit or parachute, Aikens would have to use air currents alone to guide his plummeting body towards his target and only hope of survival, a 1,000-sq ft net waiting to catch him in the Southern California desert.
But in the days before the jump, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (the labor union overseeing the event) intervened. Yahoo News reports that it issued a Do Not Work Order, claiming that it wouldn't allow Aiken to make the jump without a parachute for safety concerns.
In his training, however, Aiken had not worn a parachute. Wearing one on his back, even if left packed away, could jeopardize his freefall and landing. Fortunately, he wasn't made to roll the dice with the union lifting the order just as the plane was ascending to 25,000 ft (7,620 m).
And so it went, with Aiken freeing himself of the parachute at the eleventh hour and hurling himself into the record books. Accompanied by a trio of chuted-up freefalling fellows, Aiken first performed a couple of practice flips where he turns onto his back, the same manoeuvre he would use to land safely in the net two minutes later.
The oxygen mask was removed at 18,000 ft (5,486 m), as smoke poured from the feet of his colleagues so onlookers could more easily track their position in the sky. And then at around 4,000 ft (1,219 m), those with the capacity to do so pulled their chutes, leaving Aiken to plunge the final leg all on his own.
No more than a second before making contact with the net, Aiken calmly flips onto his back and sinks deep into the meshing. There was a moment of uncertainty as he lay still, but much to the joy of the onlookers, he was cleared of injury by the medical staff and threw his hands into the air in jubilation.
"I pushed myself further physically and mentally than ever before," says Aikins. "But I had to prove that it could be done."